Until she was well into her 80s, my mother used to make New Year’s resolutions. I am not sure whether this indicates that hope, effort or self-deception spring eternal in the human breast. Or perhaps all three at once.
I look at my desk, and then around my study. Honesty compels me to admit that they are not only a mess, but that they have always been a mess. I sincerely wish it were otherwise.
I am only too aware that tidy people are more efficient, and get more done, than untidy ones, to say nothing of the esthetic side of the question. How often have I been driven to the very brink of despair (including briefly suicidal thoughts) by an inability to put my hand to a document that I know is somewhere in the many piles around me!
From Jan. 1 this coming year, all will be different. I shall answer all my correspondence as it arrives and will not let it accumulate unanswered, let alone unopened, like an invasive plague from outer space as described in a pulp science fiction novel.
It may be, if the past is anything to go by (and we have little else to guide us), that for a day or two I keep to this resolution. Not only will everything that comes through my door have my immediate attention, but I will file it away in such a fashion that I shall have no problem in putting my hand on it in the future when I need to do so. Never again, I congratulate myself, will I be reduced to a fit of screaming, or worse still to asking my wife (which she will take, and I will mean, as a semiaccusation that she is responsible for its loss), in my attempts to locate it.
But then, of course, something will come between me and my resolution: a deadline, for example. However much I would like to be tidy, a deadline that I have to meet is more urgent, more important and - at least in the short term - more lucrative. After all, I can always catch up with the resolution after the deadline has been met.
But that is the problem with New Year’s resolutions: One can no more comply with them intermittently than a woman can be a little bit pregnant. They are like jealous gods who will brook no deviation from the ancient propitiatory ceremonies. They allow no compromise; they are absolutist in their demands. They are like Old Testament prophets.
To change the metaphor slightly, New Year’s resolutions are like eggs. Once broken, they are irreparable. In my case, I never resolve to be tidier than last year, which would not be very difficult, really. I always resolve to be tidy, absolutely tidy, which is impossible. A miss being as good as a mile, I take my revenge upon the resolution once I have broken it, and become even worse than I would have been without it. If I cannot be perfect, at least I can be perfectly dreadful.
Does there come a time in life when we wake from the dream of self-improvement, when we can accept with a good grace that our character, our habits and our tastes are fixed, and that this must be true of other people as well as of ourselves? One of my recurring New Year’s resolutions is to remain calm, polite and good-humored in the presence of opinions that not only differ from mine but (what amounts to the same thing) are either stupid or wicked.
The problem is that no one seems willing to meet me halfway. So it is not really my fault if I cannot stick to my resolution.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News